John Bradshaw pays tribute to his great uncle, Pte 705 Alfred James Steadman, 16th (Service) (3rd City of Birmingham) Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and to the thousand other men of the battalion.
Just a hundred years ago they were at Spring Hill College, now Moseley School, sleeping and eating in this building, drilling and learning the basic skills of soldiering in the grounds, at the start of four years of war.
Many of them didn’t survive those four long years, and Alfred Steadman was one who died. He died in the misery of Passchendaele, one of the costliest battles of the Western Front, in October 1917.
This event is an opportunity to look a little closer at the men of the 3rd Birmingham Pals, so let me tell you a little about him.
Alfred Steadman was typical, one of many young men who volunteered in the remarkable wave of patriotism that swept the country in August and September 1914. The Regular Army had gone to war at once, of course; the Reserves had followed days later, the Territorials soon after that, and it was clear that even with these additional troops Britain’s army would need to be expanded rapidly, by a further half-million men, to fight a continental war against a much larger German army.
Alfred Steadman had been born in 1890, in Kidderminster, and brought up in Chaddesley Corbett. He had one younger sister, Eva, my paternal grandmother. Like so many other families, the Steadmans had moved from Chaddesley Corbett to Birmingham, probably in search of work. They lived in Acock’s Green, then a village in Worcestershire. I don’t know where Alfred went to school, though I know that he was a Manufacturer’s Clerk, and that he’d gone to evening classes in Tyseley to learn shorthand, no doubt for his work. He was clearly both intelligent and diligent.
Some time in September 1914 Alfred Steadman volunteered to join the army, like thousands of other Birmingham men. I don’t know if he enlisted alone, or with a group of friends and work-mates, and if it was because of patriotism, or for the excitement of the army life instead of office work.
In Birmingham, like many other places, the concept of the Pals Battalion took hold. The idea is a simple one; recruit men who live in the same town, or work together, or play sport together, or were at school together, and you immediately have a level of bonding and rapport essential in forming a good military unit. Roughly 150 Pals battalions were raised all over the country, and Birmingham contributed three, all raised in a few days at the end of August and early September 1914.
The city had expected enough volunteers to form just one infantry battalion, though in the event nearly four thousand men volunteered, and three battalions were formed. There were some delays in forming the 3rd Birmingham Battalion, but it was fully mobilised by the first week of November 1914. There were no spare barracks locally, and the building that we now know as Moseley School was taken over as a training establishment for them. As it had been empty for some time, the Battalion cleaned the place up, and basic training began, a life very different from that of the manufacturer’s clerk Alfred Steadman had been a few days before.
He belonged to XI Platoon, C Company, and a photograph of the platoon can be found in the Birmingham City Battalions Book of Honour. I have several copies of other photographs of him; the originals, once owned by my father and two uncles, are in the Regimental Museum in Warwick. One shows him here at Moseley, with a dozen other men, in blue uniforms and winter greatcoats. It’s clear he wasn’t tall – in fact he seems to have been one of the shortest – though he’s well built. Another photograph shows him helping a Lance Corporal at a pay parade, this time at the tented camp at Malvern, where the Battalion moved in April 1915 for field training. Had he perhaps been a pay clerk in civilian life? It makes sense…
As their training programme built up, the three Birmingham Pals Battalions moved again in June 1915, to Wensleydale in North Yorkshire. Once again they lived in a tented camp, a huge one of some 12,000 men in all.
Apart from a week of rifle training at Hornsea, on the east coast, their last move in the UK came on 5th August 1915, when all three Birmingham Pals Battalions were moved to a massive hutted camp at Codford St Mary, on Salisbury Plain. My favourite photograph of Alfred Steadman is one taken in his hut, with half-a-dozen other men. It was taken late August 1915, showing them seated round a small table at a meal-time, with their personal equipment round them, beds folded away, maps pinned to the wall, a bugle hanging on a hook. The text on the postcard thanks a member of his family for some butter he’d been sent, and writes about looking forward to what he calls ‘a pipe of tobacco’ the next day.
With a year’s training over, the Battalion crossed to Boulogne on 21st November 1915. They spent the next two years on the France and Flanders front, most of it as part of the highly-regarded 5th Division. It’s clear from accounts of the battles in which they took part that the 3rd Birmingham Pals was a good infantry battalion that did its best at all times, and had a number of successes on the battlefield.
On 31st July 1917 the Third Battle of Ypres, now better known as Passchendaele, began. So too did the rain, and both battle and rain continued for three months. The Division joined the battle late in September, and 3rd Birmingham Pals spent five days in flooded and ruined trenches, soaked through, and with no hot food getting through to them. At 0520 on 9th October, in steady rain, A, B and C Companies left the wet trenches that were the British front line, and went forward to attack Polderhoeck Chateau, the ruins of which had been strongly fortified by the Germans.
The attack failed. The Chateau was far too well constructed and well defended, the conditions terrible for the attacking forces, who were exhausted and too few in number. Later that morning it was clear that they could not continue the assault, and early next day they were replaced in the front line, and withdrew to recover.
They’d suffered terrible casualties; of the 534 men who’d started the attack, more than half, 304 men, were killed, wounded or missing. A fifth of the total, 104 men, were killed. Twenty-five of the dead were men who’d started together here, at Moseley, just three years before.
I told you that my great uncle, Alfred James Steadman, was ‘typical’, and he was. There were a thousand such men here a hundred years ago. But what marks out all these ordinary men is their surpassing courage. I don’t mean just courage in attack, in facing death and terrible injury, knowing that the chances of one or the other were high, but in facing every day the equally terrible privations of life at the front – the lice, dirt, wet, cold, hunger, fear and terror, absence from family, loss of friends killed, disfigured, wounded or ill, and, if the war poets are to believed, disillusionment. I don’t know how Alfred felt about these things, but I do know that he endured all that for three years, and that he was there, with his brothers in war, the men he’d trained with here at Moseley, right to the end.
Alfred James Steadman’s body was never found, and all that remains is his photographs, his story, and his name, carved on a panel at the Tyne Cot Memorial. I went there a few years ago, to be where he was, to bring back some Flanders soil, to run my fingers over his name, and to tell him he’s not forgotten. May he, and his comrades from the 3rd Birmingham Battalion, rest in peace.